Why female friendships are work in progress

The compulsive need to label our relationships means we are never short of friends.


Anamika Chatterjee

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Published: Tue 9 Feb 2021, 12:02 AM

When I was 17, I thought I’d found true love. A classmate walked up to me one day, and confessed ‘liking’ me. We were in Class XII then and the sole purpose of our existence was to do well in the board exams next year. Amid solving tough mathematical equations and cramming complex economic theories, the new-found attention was liberating. True love back then meant something that helped you escape from textbooks. It felt good, till we received our board exam results next year where both of us had performed dismally. True love turned out to be puppy love and flew out of the window as we went our separate ways. The only decent institution that allowed me to pursue literature was an all-girls’ college, and while I had reservation about studying there, my parents were convinced otherwise.

Having studied in a co-ed institution, I seemed a misfit in this world designed for, of and by women. The conversations were about studies or eating out, and bunking a class — a rite of passage in college — was unthinkable. The classroom, despite being filled with girls my age, was a debating hotspot, as we put forth our respective views on canonised works of literature. Our disagreements extended beyond classroom to lunches and weekends. If we had our views on each other, it was based on the quality of arguments we presented.

It was also in these spaces that I forged friendships that were as endearing as they were complex. As I topped college in the first year, a friend remarked that it could be because my brother happened to be a professor in the same university. The very fact that he taught mathematics, and not English literature, was carefully omitted from her argument. My academic high was followed next year by an embarrassing blow that even surprised my professors. The same friend came up to me and suggested we spend a couple of hours at the library going through some important texts that could add to our knowledge. Was she manipulative? Envious? Empathetic? Or all of the above? I didn’t care to probe, but just went with the flow.

Over the years, my life has been populated with many folks who have a more ambiguous-yet-empathetic response to highs and lows I experience. Textbook morality will have you believe that anyone who is not overjoyed at your success is a lesser friend. And yet this black-and-white notion of friendships does not work in real life. People often tend to respond to developments in another person’s life through their own context. Sure, selflessness is a revered virtue, but it becomes negotiable when one is in pits. Thus, conventional morality cannot be applied to multilayered friendships. In Italian novelist Elena Ferrante’s enchanting novel My Brilliant Friend, which is considered an epic narrative on female friendships, Lila (the titular friend) is not able to afford the education her close friend (the narrator) is able to receive simply because her social and familial circumstances do not allow her to do so. A void of this nature does give birth to envy, but it does not alter the very foundations of the friendship which is based on an assortment of other emotions — joy, trust, sadness and anticipation.

The compulsive need to label our relationships means we are never short of friends. A person we confide in at work is ‘office spouse’, someone we like to hang out with is a ‘friend’, as is the ex-colleague who we like to talk to about our shared experiences. So, who really is the ‘friend’ here? It’s important to segregate people who are filling our void with those who we rely on and support emotionally, just so we can have reasonable expectations from both sets of people we know.

Fragility is often feared in friendships, but it is an indicator that a relationship is a work in progress. It is in their fragility that female friendships build — and rebuild — their foundations. Ones that are stronger than puppy love.


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